In 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys went out late one night to ride their bikes. They were never seen alive again. The ensuing media circus that erupted lead to the conviction of three teenagers (The West Memphis Three) who many believed were innocent of these heinous crimes. Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. It was the basis of three stirring, powerful, galvanizing documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, two men credited with saving the West Memphis Three. Now after their release from prison, here comes Devil’s Knot, the first fictional film about the notorious case, Hollywood’s first crack at well-tread material. Is there anything new to be found?
Director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) and his screenwriters do a credible job of distilling the complicated case against the West Memphis Three to its basics, relying on a modulated tone that shies away from the sensationalism that dominated the case back in 1993. With the benefit of time and hindsight, it’s easy for the movie to point out the erroneous thinking of the prosecution, the jump to conclusions, and the Satanic panic engulfing the community of Arkansas. We’re told by a police officer that they knew this “Satanic cult stuff” would hit town; they’ve just been waiting for the day. To its credit, the movie does a fine job of calmly and objectively pointing out the deficiencies in the police and prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three. We’re told that from the twelve hours of interrogation with Jessie Misskelley, only 40-some minutes was recorded. The obvious mistakes in his confession, as well as the police coaching and coaxing him to their desired response, is made readily apparent. There’s “witness” Vicki Hutchernson (Mireille Enos of the oft-canceled The Killing) who says she say chief suspect Damien in a Satanic ritual, but the film cuts back from the imaginary to Vicki watching a movie on TV, the real source of her descriptive flourishes. Egoyan’s direction has a calm, objective overview that is reverent and respectful of the dead and the bereaved. It’s rarely boring and the facts of this case are such that any retelling would be somewhat compelling.
So that brings me to the ultimate question: why even make a fictional movie about this subject? Four lengthy documentaries have covered the intricacies of the legal story, the breakdown in justice, and the personal toll on all sides of the crime. The only thing a fictional movie provides is: 1) the fun/distracting game of seeing relatively famous actors play the real-life people we’ve previously seen, and, 2) as an option for people who hate documentaries. If you’re one of those people who dislikes documentaries and doesn’t view them as “real movies,” then Devil’s Knot is for you, you dismissive filmgoer. Otherwise, literally everything was handled better in the Paradise Lost films. With the West Memphis Three thankfully out of prison, the omnipresent sense of urgency from the documentaries is now absent, replaced with a Monday morning quarterback sensibility pointing out all the obvious bias, judicial hypocrisy, and flaws of the case. And as anyone who has plowed through the powerful and addicting documentaries knows, there are plenty of flaws to point out for harsh scrutiny and incredulity. Movies have a long history of showing us an example of judicial injustice, and this is a prime example. However, Egoyan has put the emphasis of his movie on two outsiders rather than people in the center of this case. The West Memphis Three themselves are barely supporting actors in their own movie. I suppose the filmmakers may have wanted to present a different angle to the case since the Paradise Lost films showed the accused up close and personal. The construction of this plot just doesn’t work under the perspectives of Pam (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron (Colin Firth).
Ron serves as a pro-bono adviser to the defense, but that doesn’t mean he has the same access inside and outside the court. He can gather evidence on his own but really this guy is meant to be a fly-on-the-wall for the planning and frustration of all the legal roadblocks thrown at the defense. Is an added body in the room necessary? Could not one of the defense attorneys have provided the same purpose? Instead, he gets to grumble in the court and out about all the legal shenanigans going on to railroad innocent boys. He is essentially spelling it out to an audience. Pam has even less narrative purpose in the film. Her perspective makes sense early on as the mother of one of the murdered young children. Her panic, her worst nightmare come to life, it all makes for the stuff of major drama, which is why you’d imagine Witherspoon was drawn to the part. But once the case against the West Memphis Three gets going, Pam transforms into our Chief Reaction Shot Provider. Whenever a curious moment happens in court, we cut back to Pam and Witherspoon cocking her head in dawning curiosity and uncertainty. It’s as if she is meant to symbolically represent the entire community that was so fervent in their beliefs that these boys were guilty… until they heard the shaky case and the questionable experts put on the stand. So Pam and Ron end up becoming signals to the audience on how to feel and what to think. The movie doesn’t have enough faith in its audience to keep up with the minutia of the trail, or even the lawyers’ arguments, reducing a complex legal trial down to two nonessential characters nodding or shaking their heads.
I’ll admit that I had some interest watching the actors inhabit the roles, and there are scads of people involved in this story. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) does a valiant job showcasing the head-scratching decisions of the trail judge, David Burnett, and his slimy dismissive nature. Stephen Moyer (TV’s True Blood) is particularly infuriating as John Fogleman, chief prosecuting attorney. Seth Meriwether (Trouble with the Curve) looks eerily like his character, the young and accused Jason Baldwin, and he nails his moral convictions and gentle nature. Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) gets to do his troubled youth thing he does so well. Kevin Durand is an actor I normally enjoy but even he can’t do justice to John Mark Byers, step-father to one of the slain boys, and easily the most memorable figure in the Paradise Lost films; the man is so theatrical and larger-than-life, and yet Devil’s Knot treats him like a featured extra, with many of his speaking scenes off camera. There isn’t a bad actor in the extremely large cast, though Firth’s Southern accent isn’t the most refined. If the movie lacks much reason for existing, at least the bevy of good actors respectfully bringing new life to these people, good, bad, and many somewhere in between, is the one credible quality to this movie.
What to make of Devil’s Knot, an example of a decent, modulated, and well acted movie that ultimately has no reason to exist in the wake of three excellent documentaries (Paradise Lost) and one other pretty good one (West of Memphis). The ground has been covered. However, that doesn’t mean that a well-told story can’t be told again, with a different angle, with a different approach, but Devil’s Knot hinges on two characters serving as metaphorical barometers to teach the audience what to think and how to feel. Then there’s the matter that the trail covers the entire 114-minute running time. There’s so much more that happens after the initial trial, so much that the last two minutes of this movie are almost a nonstop barrage of text updating the audience on many of the post-trial developments, including the West Memphis Three being released from prison in 2011. The movie feels too limited; there is so much more depth here, to the details of the case, to the personalities and human drama, to the story after the trial. Egoyan and his cast and crew have made a respectful fictional version of these sensational events, but the problem is that they don’t do enough to justify their own film’s existence. Unless you have an irrational hatred for documentaries, just watch those instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+
No movie this summer has had such a dark cloud of bad buzz like Brad Pitt’s World War Z. Based upon Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, it’s a global zombie action adventure that Pitt, as producer, has developed for years. He hired director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) and after a very protracted shoot, according to reports, neither was on speaking terms. A Vanity Fair article highlights the fascinating challenges World War Z endured, the biggest being a third act that, while filmed, did not work. The movie’s release date was pushed back twice, from summer 2012 to December 2012 to finally summer 2013. That sort of talk usually raises critic hackles, anticipating a bomb that all parties are trying their best to salvage some investment. It’s something of a small miracle then that the finished film actually kind of sort of mostly works. It still feels lacking and under developed but World War Z is not the fiasco many had feared.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is an ex U.N. inspector pulled back into the field to do nothing less than possibly save humanity from the undead. The world is under siege by a new sort of pandemic, one that reanimates the dead. Gerry and his family barely escape Philadelphia alive and find refuge on a U.S. aircraft carrier offshore. Gerry bids his family goodbye and zips around the globe looking for Patient Zero. If he can crack the mystery of how it all began perhaps mankind can develop a cure.
For fans of the book, it’s best to come to terms with the fact that the only thing World War Z has in common with its source material is the fact that there are zombies. There is one reference to Israel’s response to zombie rumors, but that’s it. Believe me, I know the book is excellent but allow me to play devil’s advocate here. Would a strict adaptation of Brooks’ book work as a movie? Perhaps, but it takes place years after the titular World War Z. I understand the producers’ wishes to set the movie in the middle of the crises, adding urgency and an immediate sense of suspense. Once you go that route, there are certain limitations to your storytelling. Unless you were going to go the Crash-style ensemble route, you’re going to need a central character/hero to tie it all together, and that too limits your storytelling options. Gerry can hop around the globe but we’re still only following one man’s personal experiences. While in the air, we see in the distance below a mushroom cloud rising. Who detonated an atomic bomb and why? We never know, and it’s that sort of in-the-moment fog of war madness that helps the movie operate. I enjoyed watching the small moments of society breaking down. Factoring in all that, I’d say that the big-screen edition of Brooks’ book is a passable starter, an appetizer that gets you hungry for more.
This movie is one of the first global-scale zombie outbreak films I can recall. Usually the zombie subgenre is told in confined spaces, remote locations, intimate settings. Danny Boyle had some larger London set pieces with 28 Days Later but that was still a film about dark corridors and small places. The scale of World War Z is what sets it apart. There is a degree of fascination watching the world come apart, and watching it fall apart in so many places adds to that. Gerry hops from one hotspot to the next in his quest and we watch as each new location goes to hell. It gives a greater sense to the dire threat out there. In the information age, and with Gerry’s U.N. connections, he can get global reports, and to learn that nowhere is safe helps maximize the pandemic threat and sense of urgency. I didn’t even mind Forster’s decision to present the teeming armies of the undead like there were a swarm of bees, rolling and tumbling over one another, forming formidable human pyramids. It’s a fairly spooky image and relates back to the nature-undone alchemy that makes zombies tick, plus it gives an extra sinister edge to the zombies. High-walled structures are not the sanctuaries we might have assumed. The true terror afforded by zombies, beyond the fact that the monster is us, is its inevitability; it doesn’t matter what you do, they will get you. There are more of them, and they don’t require food, water, sleep, and have only one goal. Adding to that sense of doom I think is a good move, and the raging sea of human bodies also helps Forster keep the PG-13 rating the studio dictated. I didn’t really miss the blood/gore, though one sequence where Gerry slices off a soldier’s infected arm seems a bit too clean and precise.
I criticized Forster’s skills directing action after 2008’s deeply disappointing Bond misfire, Quantum of Solace. The man showed no real feel for action sequences. Perhaps the man found a greater appeal to World War Z because there are some genuinely thrilling action and suspense sequences here and Forster deserves credit. The Israel sequence degenerates at a horrifying speed, and I loved the touch of caged passageways being erected through streets as a last-second defense from falling zombies. The initial stop in South Korea is at night and in the rain, thwarting Gerry and his team from seeing too far into the distance. It makes for a rather suspenseful sequence that makes good use of darkness and cover. The zombie actors in this movie deserve some recognition. They really get into all their clicks and clacks and add some creepy authenticity to the proceedings. Then there’s the airplane attack, zombies on a plane, that is all over the film’s advertising blitz. It’s a rather entertaining sequence, though one can’t help but provide some class subtext when the first class passengers barricade themselves while the coach passengers are torn apart. I still think Forster would be more at home with smaller dramas but he shows much more prowess for larger material.
The reshot third act, thanks to added writers Damon Lindelof (TV’s Lost, Prometheus) and his pal Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), drastically scales down the scope of the pandemic. After two acts of all-out global chaos, we retreat back to the zombie film roots: a small, secluded place. The third act is almost like its own little separate movie. Partly because it’s something different, more horror/suspense than action, as well as being in the confined space, but also because Lindelof and Goddard do a fine job of structuring this concluding chapter. When Gerry gets to a World Health Organization outpost in Wales, he has a simple goal: get from one end of a lab to another. Oh, there are zombies all over the lab. Its narrative simplicity, as well as the clear focus, is a satisfying way to close out a movie that was sort of all over the place. Forster seems to really enjoy the suspense setups that he gets to have fun with in the third act, things like ducking around corners, avoiding zombie detection. The very end provides a ray of hope for humanity… until you fully think out what the consequences are for that hope (the first line of defense shall be hookers). Anyway, it sets up a sequel where mankind can begin fighting back. How do I know this? None other than Gerry’s closing lines are: “This is only the beginning. This war isn’t over.” A bit of hope on Pitt’s part as well there.
And yet with the world falling apart and Pitt our savior, I found myself from the outset very emotionally unengaged with the film. Pitt’s performance is perfectly suited for the material. It’s just the whole family man angle that doesn’t work. I understand it gives Gerry some personal stakes in doing his job but wouldn’t, I don’t know, saving the world be enough when it comes to motivation? It’s your standard reluctant hero’s tale, but the family stuff just kept dragging down Gerry’s character. To begin with, a man looking like Brad Pitt who voluntarily makes pancakes for his kids every morning… sounds like the stuff of fantasies for many. However, it almost keeps him away from his mission, the greater good, and there’s actually a sequence in South Korea where his family literally endangers Gerry’s life by making a phone call. Then the movie keeps cutting back to their existence on an aircraft carrier like I have equal interest in this storyline. One storyline involves Gerry flying the world over and escaping zombies. The other storyline involves whether Karin and the kids will be kicked off the ship. Which would you rather spend time with an as audience member? I didn’t really care about Gerry’s sad wife, played by Mireille Enos from the sad TV show The Killing. I had more invested in the Israeli soldier (Daniella Kerteesz) Gerry teams up with. My father even wanted them to run off together by the end and ditch Karin. I won’t even speak to the awkward storyline where Gerry’s family unofficially adopts a Hispanic kid after his parents die. If only those poor souls had listened to the knowledgeable white man who they took care of.
The big-screen version of World War Z bears little resemblance to the book of the same name, and that’s okay. Some adjustments are necessary in adapting, like bringing the actions of the story into the present, centering on a major character. As a book fan, I was somewhat disappointed in the unfulfilled potential presented, but as a movie fan I’m more disappointed by the film’s overall execution. There’s a lot of money in this production, the most expensive zombie film of all time, and a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. And yet after even pulling off a mostly effective ending, World War Z is more middling than it ever should be. Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies; that should be enough, but it’s not. The movie shows flashes of intelligence, of socio-politico commentary, of something greater, but those moments are fleeting and ground down to make way for a mass-appeal action blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of movies (Roland Emmerich does them exceptionally well), but World War Z doesn’t have the brain-headed flair to pull it off. It’s thrilling, in spurts, interesting, in spurts, and entertaining, in spurts, but it fails to coalesce into something truly worthwhile. My allegiance to the book, as well as zombies in general, guarantees I’ll be there for more if World War Z spawns sequels. Hopefully there will be more because there are so many great stories from the book yet to be told (namely, everything).
Nate’s Grade: B-
It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.
In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).
This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.
The main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.
Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional. They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.
Finally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.
Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.
Nate’s Grade: C